Across the nation, numerous signs point to an economic recovery. But there remain tens of millions of Americans who are out of work and are as vulnerable as they might have been during the height of the downturn.
Not surprisingly, the faith-based organizations that help them are struggling to meet the demand for services.
Pastors and others who oversee benevolence programs say the need was greater last year than in 2008 and 2009, and that they expect the situation to worsen before it improves. A projected sharp increase in home foreclosures this year isn’t expected to help.
At churches around the city, congregations have been asked repeatedly to open their wallets to help the less-fortunate.
Here’s a look at several local faith-based nonprofits that are working to provide people with food, shelter and money for their utilities bills — and the challenges they face in doing so.
Ecumenical Social Ministries
Founding in 1982 by eight downtown churches, Ecumenical Social Ministries employs fewer than 20 people and relies heavily on volunteers, about 130, to keep its programs operating.
As of last week, Ecumenical Social had assisted 1,375 families with housing and utilities since July 1, and gave food to 6,909 families during the same time period, said Carolyn McDole, executive director of ESM.
Although the need for services has increased since 2008, it served fewer people this fiscal year because funding cuts meant the nonprofit had to decrease the number of people it helped.
McDole also expects that demand will remain the same, if not increase, over last year.
“The lower end of the economic scale is the last to recover,” she said. “There’s no lack of need walking in our door every day.
“We’re not coming out of the recession,” said Rabbi Mel Glazer, the spiritual leader of the Temple Shalom congregation.
“Our spirit is up. Our membership is enthusiastic and supportive. But like every denomination in the country, we struggle for funds,” he said. “We’re hurting.”
The lack of resources is primarily because of high, long-term unemployment.
Membership is down by 30 families from last year. Many of those families were among the congregation’s largest donors.
Glazer said that in the past year, he has given out more money from the temple’s discretionary fund to help people pay rent and utilities or to buy medicine than he has in any year over the last 30 years.
“Thank God there are people in our congregation whom I can go to who understand that times are tough,” Glazer said.
Another indicator of tough economic times: new families and individuals often ask for a cut in their annual temple membership dues.
“Our budget is at the bone,” Glazer said. “If it decreases, we will have to cut programs.”
That would be an extreme measure, though, and Glazer said the temple is doing all it can to avoid it.
“We are suffering from the financial downturn that everybody else is suffering with, and we hope the future will be brighter,” he said. “At the same time, we’re going forward with our programming (because) we want our members to know we love them and care about them.”
New Life Church
Amie Streater, associate pastor of financial stewardship for New Life Church, said most of the requests the church receives are from people in the community, not from members of the church, which is one of the largest in the nation.
In the past two years, requests for help have more than doubled at New Life.
Those seeking help include middle-aged professional couples who are both out of work, single mothers whose ex-husbands are jobless and can’t afford child support payments, and families that have been unable to pay their utilities for months and months.
“Their dignity is so important during this time,” Streater said. “They need more than just a handout. It’s about relationships. We want to educate people, encourage them and build them up.”
The two things New Life helps with most are utility payments and rental assistance.
Although the mega-church doesn’t have a food pantry, it contributes to and partners with food banks and other agencies that already have systems in place throughout the community.
The church also offers free weekly financial aid classes to help people understand how to better shore up their sagging finances and avoid, or at least minimize, future financial disasters.
“We don’t want to just put out the fire; we want to send them off with an extinguisher,” Streater said.
Security Church of Christ
Just south of Colorado Springs, this small church with 65 members has especially felt the impact of the recession.
“We are obviously getting more calls from people asking for benevolent help,” said Curtis Hartshorn, minister at Security Church of Christ. “It’s a two-edged sword because our members are going through the same recession, and we’re not able to help as many people as we’d like to.”
The church has been able to increase its benevolence budget by 5 percent each year since 2008 — but that’s not enough to meet demand, and certainly not as much as the church would like to do.
Each year since the recession began, requests for assistance with food, gas, auto parts and rent have increased.
The church also hasn’t been able to bolster any programs, nor increase salaries in the past several years.
“Those we have helped sure appreciate it, but we sure wish we could help more,” Hartshorn said.
Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs
Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs, an extension of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, provides food and the full gamut of social services for El Paso County and other areas. It, too, has felt the brunt of the economic downturn.
“We are struggling to keep up with the demand for food and supplies for all of our programs,” said Rochelle Blaschke Schlortt, director of communications for Catholic Charities.
Over the past several years, the organization has seen a significant increase in the number of people seeking help. At The Marian House, volunteers serve 600 meals on most days — a substantial increase from two years ago.
The nonprofit used to have more than a week’s worth of food on hand; nowadays, that has decreased to about three- to four-day’s worth.
Also, the number of people the nonprofit has served in its Life Support Services is down, not because there are fewer people requesting support, but because it doesn’t have enough baby food, diapers, formula and other necessary items to give to parents.
Although people in the community help during holidays, Catholic Charities needs more donations of emergency supplies that families need each week.
“While the upper classes may be experiencing recovery, it has not trickled down to the people we serve,” Schlortt said. “Jobs are still scare, so people still need help.”